One fine day in October of 1891, a teenage boy named Aquilla Ernest Clark left the farm in Scappoose where he’d been working, headed for Portland. He was going to see the sights and maybe show himself a good time for a few days.
He wandered around the waterfront, taking drinks here and there and probably taking a hand in a card game or two; then, when it was getting close to evening, he met a pleasant fellow who happened to mention that he was staying at the sailors’ boardinghouse at Second and Glisan streets. “It’s the best place to stay in Portland,” he said.
That sounded good; Aquilla needed a place to stay for the night. So he went with his new friend to the boardinghouse.
“The place was rather dimly lighted,” Aquilla told author Stewart Holbrook, years later, in a 1933 interview for the Portland Sunday Oregonian. “A Scandinavian was playing an accordion in the big main room on the ground floor; several old-time seamen, or at least I took them to be such, were sitting in chairs around the room, smoking pipes that reeked to the skies and telling how these new-fangled steamboats would never amount to much.”
It was good enough for Aquilla. He checked in.
The next morning, when Aquilla went downstairs, he was met by a jovial man who introduced himself as Smith. Smith had gathered a group of six or eight other fellows who were obviously newcomers to the boardinghouse, and now he offered to buy them all breakfast.
Over breakfast, Smith just happened to mention that the proprietor of the boardinghouse, a fellow named Larry Sullivan, was hosting a party.
“He has chartered a riverboat to make a trip to Astoria and back to Portland,” Smith said. “Maybe you fellers would like to go along?”
“We fellers did want to go along,” Aquilla recalled.
Smith had the young men wait outside the boardinghouse, and while they were there, the first of several one-horse cabs pulled up to drop off a dozen or so gorgeous and daringly-dressed young women. They, too, were there for the party.
Presently the steamboat Iralda arrived at the dock, and everyone stepped aboard.
“Smith had seen to it that we all had a few snorts of hard liquor and also one each of the justly celebrated Peach Blow cocktail, which was the invention of H.C. Malcolm, manager of the Portland Hotel bar,” Aquilla recalled. “Mr. Sullivan had provided an orchestra of three pieces — violin, accordion, and guitar — and the girls grabbed us and we danced.”
“Mr. Sullivan stayed very much in the background on the trip to Astoria,” he added. “He quietly saw to it that all of us had everything we wanted, but Mr. Smith was the life of the party, as they say nowadays.”
Along about 1 p.m., still an hour or two out of Astoria, the gong rang for lunch. It was a sumptuous feast: “I have never had such food, either on salt or fresh-water boats,” Aquilla said. “There was steak if you wanted it, or there was pork, or you might order oysters, crabs, or fried salmon. Along with the mid-day dinner they served rye whiskey, rum, and three kinds of wine.”
More drinking followed, and more dancing.
Finally the merry company arrived at Astoria, and just before they put into the harbor, Smith gathered the company around him and laid down some papers on the saloon table.
“We are going ashore in Astoria so all of you can see what the town looks like. We’ll have an hour ashore and then we’ll go back to Portland. Just to make sure that all of you are aboard when we leave, sign your name on this passenger list. Then when we are ready to go we’ll be sure that everyone is here.”
Eager to get ashore, everyone signed, and then off they went for the promised one-hour town-painting spree.
On shore, Smith squired the young fellows from pub to pub, standing round after round, and after an hour or so of this hosted bar-hopping none of the boys were thinking very clearly.
Perhaps that’s why not a single one of them saw anything strange about Smith’s suggestion that maybe they’d like to take a tour of a deep-water sailing ship before they returned to the Iralda.
The blue-water ship chosen for this “tour” was the T.F. Oakes out of New York City, a full-rigged windjammer with a steel hull loaded with 21 tons of wheat bound for the French port of Le Havre.
“We in the first boat came alongside the vessel and they let down a ladder for us,” Aquilla recalled. “We climbed aboard, and one of the mates welcomed us. I forgot to say, Mr. Smith stayed in the rowboat.”
Maybe if they’d had a little less to drink, one of the boys would have noticed that fact in time to do something. But there wouldn’t have been much they could have done at that point. If one of them had figured out what was afoot, and dove overboard and swam ashore, a cop would have been waiting when he got there, ready to escort him back to the ship.
They didn’t know it yet, but Aquilla and his colleagues were already sailors, and had been for over an hour. The “passenger list” they’d signed had actually been the ship’s articles; they’d been not only signing in, but signing up as well. And in the 1890s, sailors who skipped after signing onto a ship were hunted down and dragged back to work by law enforcement the same way runaway slaves had been in the old South during the bad old ante-bellum days. It was a form of indentured servitude.
But, back to our story: The friendly ship’s officer proceeded to give the men a tour of the T.F. Oakes, explaining how the steam-powered anchor winch worked, giving the names of each of the three masts, and babbling amiably about the difference between barks and barkentines and how they were different from full-riggers like the T.F. Oakes. He was prattling on about such things when Aquilla glanced over his shoulder and saw all the rowboats pulling for shore, leaving them behind on the ship.
That was about the time that four uniformed police officers stepped out of one of the cabins on deck. Each of them had a .45-caliber revolver in each hand — eight guns, covering 10 men. They weren’t taking any chances.
Then another cabin door opened and out came the captain of the T.F. Oakes, with the rest of the ship’s complement of officers.
“Now, young men, you are sailors on the T.F. Oakes and you’re going to Le Havre, France,” the skipper told them. “Just to make sure you are going I’m going to sort of tie you together for a while.”
Of course, the lads protested. The skipper was ready for them. One look at the “passenger register” they’d signed on the Iralda, which the skipper had in his pocket ready to show them, and the dullest among them surely knew their case was hopeless.
They had been shanghaied. It had all been a big trap — the party, the boat ride, the drinks, the friendly ladies hired to entertain them — all a trap to get the 10 of them to sign that register and thus launch themselves on a new and unexpected maritime career.
(As a side note, the boardinghouse “runner” who handled them so smoothly, “Mr. Smith,” was very likely the notorious Portland underworld entrepreneur Joseph “Bunco” Kelley. Several years later he and Larry Sullivan would have a very violent falling-out, and in 1894 Sullivan railroaded him into prison on a trumped-up murder rap; but in 1891 Bunco was Sullivan’s number-one lieutenant, and a very smooth operator indeed. It’s actually somewhat unlikely that Sullivan would have entrusted anyone else with a job of this magnitude.)
The captain spent some time giving his new sailors a pep talk before sending them below. He spoke glowingly about the glories of being a sailor before the mast, and opined that all young men should go to sea for a voyage or two before settling down in life, and that an able-bodied seaman was one of the finest and noblest of God’s creatures.
“I never did understand why the skipper went to all this trouble telling us how fortunate we were to go to sea and especially fortunate to go to sea on such a fine ship as the T.F. Oakes,” Aquilla remarked to Holbrook. “He had us completely in his power, but here he was talking like a recruiting officer for the Navy.”
Maybe it was because talk was cheap. The fact was, it was very uncommon for a sailing ship to be desperate enough to accept ten total greenhorns — about two-thirds of its normal complement of sailors — on its crew. And it hadn’t gotten itself into such a predicament by being a good place to work. The T.F. Oakes had a reputation as a “hell ship.”
The wise sailors, the ones who had been around a while, took care to not be around the boardinghouse when ships like the T.F. Oakes were due to leave port. The captain who spoke so highly of life as a sailor was notorious — not for physically abusing sailors (he left that to his first mate, a scowling bully known as Black Johnson) but for not feeding them adequately. Sailors would put up with a lot of physical abuse, but constant gnawing hunger was something else.
Chances are, Sullivan’s “party” helped the skipper out of a very tight fix, and he certainly must have paid handsomely for it.
And so did Aquilla and his nine companions. After they had passed over the Columbia River Bar (below decks, handcuffed to a stanchion) and crossed two oceans as A.B. mariners, they arrived at Le Havre to find that Sullivan had claimed $60 — two months’ pay — from each of them, to cover the cost of his boat party.
It would be seven years before Aquilla Ernest Clark would see Oregon again.
(Sources: “I Was Shanghaied,” a four-part article published in the Sunday Oregonian starting Oct. 29, 1933; “The Oregon Shanghaiers,” a book by Barney Blalock published in 2014 by The History Press)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.